The myth of the undecided voter

In every election cycle, pundits, political fans, activists, and anyone else paying attention talks about “the undecideds”, “late breakers”, or whatever once awe struck, over the top, deifying term they want to use to describe the people who they believe will determine the outcome of an election.  Sometimes they’re critical, e.g. 2000 and 2002.  Other times, they just determine the margin of victory, e.g. 2006 and 2008.

If you eat, sleep and breathe politics, you might want to sit down for this one: in the eyes of most of those who were undecided until the last minute, there wasn’t much difference between the parties.  Like it or not, there was and is a very prevalent “they all suck” sentiment, and the decisions in those elections, the few Obama sycophants notwithstanding, was a decision on which kind of suck they were willing to live with at the time.  All but a few activists, including if not especially those here, have had “they all suck” moments, and those who haven’t will if they stay involved long enough.  Even so, out of habit, civic duty, indoctrination, coercion (if you live in Philadelphia), or whatever else, many of those identified as undecided likely voters made their decisions and cast their ballots.

Allow me to posit that this year is different.  There is, to be sure, a very palpable “they all suck” mentality.  The majority of voters still don’t like or trust Republicans, though most seem to like or trust Democrats less.  Even those on this site need to keep reminding ourselves why we give a damn when we hear the “we know we have to compromise” comments, or the joke of a Contract with America 2.0.  Individually, there are some candidates we’d really like to see elected.  Speaking for myself, though, I still have to say that on the whole, both parties still suck.

So what’s the difference?

In all those years, the late deciders had an option they could live with.  In none of those cases was the entirety of the federal government, or, in most cases, government at every level, Republican and Democrat, so unpopular.  That’s why this year is unique.  The overwhelming majority of voters who have had it with the Democrats have made up their minds to vote Republican, even if they don’t like it.  Those voters can live with Republicans.  They have made the determined that stopping the Obama agenda is reason enough to compromise with themselves and create some balance in Washington, regardless of whether they like, trust, or agree with Republicans.  Although I’ve never been a late decider, I can say that I certainly don’t like or trust Republicans, and I can’t say whether I agree with them because, while there are individual stars, I’m not sure they stand for anything as a Party.  Similarly, those who are either full-fledged behind the Obama agenda or willing to defeat Republicans at all cost are already voting Democrat.

So what of the undecideds?  There is no likable figure at the top of either ticket, as there was in 2000 and 2008.  There is no rally to the CoC as there was in 2002.  There is a “throw the bums out” mentality, but both Republicans and Democrats are viewed as bums as there was in 2006.  It’s been a long time since Americans have been enamored with their politicians, but it is similarly rare to see both parties struggling to get to 40% approval combined.  So what does this mean for the undecideds?

As I mentioned above, people vote for a variety of reasons.  The gamut of voters runs from people who live and breathe politics 24/7/365 to the casual observer who tunes in once every two or four years.  Obviously, voters who decide at the last minute tend toward the latter.  While members here, and our counterparts on the left, are either gung ho for one lot of candidates or dead set against the other, undecided voters who don’t follow it as much are just fed up with the whole system.  In previous years, they may have decided that one party was marginally better than the other.  At this point, though, I suspect that those people don’t think either party is better, that there is no lesser evil.  As a result, I expect that they will sit out in much, much higher numbers than usual.

If I am correct, this means that last minute swings are unlikely, and that the final results, rather than swinging heavily toward one candidate – usually the challenger, are likely to have results that are very, very nearly proportional to the results of the final polls before the election.  If, and it is a big if, this is correct, candidates in tight races and their allies should at this point more or less stop focusing on undecided voters and concentrate almost exclusively on getting out the vote.  It may seem risky, but I think it’s the best course of action.